No best pic contenders at halfway point

The year is half over, but the Oscar race hasn’t begun.

Monday marks the midway point of the year; the date also comes three months after the last ceremony and three months before campaigning shifts into gear. But don’t imagine that Oscar’s dance card is half-full. So far, there are few serious contenders — fish, facts and f/x — and the rest is slim pickings.

The fish and facts would be “Finding Nemo” and two docus, “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Ghosts of the Abyss,” which seem likely to be remembered at awards time.

As for f/x, the January-June period has seen the bows of potential contenders in all tech categories, including “X2: X-Men United,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Hulk” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” with many more such films to come before the end of the year.

There are few other possibilities so far: Focus’ “Swimming Pool” (actress Charlotte Rampling), Warner Bros.-Castle Rock’s “A Mighty Wind” (perfs, song), Fox’s “Down With Love” (art direction, costumes), Newmarket’s “Whale Rider” and Miramax’s “City of God” (ineligible in the foreign-lingo race but possible in other categories).

In recent races, several Oscar heavyweights have launched in the first half of the year, including “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Moulin Rouge.” Due to the abbreviated schedule — the Oscarcast will be Feb. 29, rather than late March — you might think the studios would accelerate their Oscar contenders to a year-round calendar. You would be wrong.

The studios’ priority is always the maximizing of box office, with Academy Awards a secondary concern. So the majors this year have stuck to the traditional calendar: First quarter, dumping ground/experimentation; May-August, popcorn movies; September-December, prestige pics/holiday fun.

But if everything stays on schedule, there won’t be a December logjam like last year: September-November are chockfull of Oscar hopefuls. “It’s like planes backed up at La Guardia, just waiting to take off,” one Academy member wisecracked.

Most of these films are not finished, so at this point it’s really a guessing game. There is one film, however, that always figures in the guessing, even though no one’s seen it: New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

“It’s their year. It’s the film we’re all waiting to see,” said an awards strategist from a rival studio. Director Peter Jackson hit home runs with the first two “Rings” pics, and the third offers the most personal and emotional story. But, the Oscar campaigner noted with a word of warning, the film’s years-in-the-making momentum and Hollywood’s anticipation means “it’s also the one that everyone’s going to try to knock down.”

Then there’s a slew of films that haven’t opened in the U.S. yet but got positive buzz at Sundance and Cannes, such as Fine Line’s “American Splendor”; Lions Gate’s “The Cooler” (William H. Macy); Sony Pictures Classics’ docu “The Fog of War: 11 Lessons of Robert S. McNamara”; IDP-Goldwyn’s Toni Collette starrer “Japanese Story”; United Artists’ “Pieces of April”; Fox Searchlight’s “Thirteen”; Sony Pictures Classics’ animated “The Triplets of Belleville”; and two pics from Oscar-winning helmers, WB’s Clint Eastwood-directed “Mystic River” and Searchlight’s “The Dreamers” (Bernardo Bertolucci).

Many Oscar pundits expect the 76th annual Oscar race to take shape with Universal-DreamWorks’ July 25 release “Seabiscuit.”

There’s also positive buzz for two pics that open in August, Miramax’s “The Magdalene Sisters” and Disney’s “Open Range,” helmed by Kevin Costner (who won for “Dances With Wolves”). The following month will see another film from an Oscar winner: Robert Benton’s “The Human Stain,” for Miramax. (And wouldn’t Hollywood wags love to see Miramax and parent company Disney slug it out in the Academy Awards race?)

Other English-language offerings in the last four months of the year include many pics with awards pedigree. Only time will tell whether they’re Oscar bait, commercial hits or both.

September: New Line’s “Secondhand Lions” (Michael Caine, Robert Duvall); WB’s “Matchstick Men” (Ridley Scott); Disney’s “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Diane Lane); and Sony Classics’ “My Life Without Me.”

October: Focus Features’ “Sylvia” (Gwyneth Paltrow); Disney’s “Veronica Guerin” (Cate Blanchett); Fox’s “Runaway Jury”; U’s “Intolerable Cruelty” (Coen brothers); Miramax’s “Kill Bill” (Quentin Tarantino); Paramount’s “Beyond Borders”; and MGM’s Carl Franklin-helmed “Out of Time” (Denzel Washington).

November: Fox-Universal-Miramax’s Peter Weir epic “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”; Focus Features’ “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”; U’s “Love, Actually” and “The Cat in the Hat”; Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Statement” (Norman Jewison); and Fox Searchlight’s “In America.”

December: WB’s “The Last Samurai”; DreamWorks’ “House of Sand and Fog”; Disney’s “Calendar Girls”; a trio from Sony Pictures: “The Missing” (from another Oscar winner, Ron Howard), the untitled Nancy Meyers pic with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton and “Mona Lisa Smile” (Julia Roberts). There is also a trio to open on Christmas Day: Disney’s “The Alamo,” Miramax’s “Cold Mountain” (from past winner Anthony Minghella) and U’s “Peter Pan.”

Then there are some pics that haven’t set a date yet, such as Fox Searchlight’s “The Clearing” (Robert Redford).

And every Academy Awards race features dark horses. This year, even rivals are singing the praises of Focus Features’ Sofia Coppola pic “Lost in Translation” (Bill Murray, which bows mid-September) and Screen Gems’ Jane Campion-helmed “In the Cut” (with Meg Ryan, late October).

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